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Thursday, 13 May 1915

Senator RUSSELL (Victoria) (Assistant Minister) . - I do not know that I was vague, nor did I mean to be unsympathetic. I agree with almost everything that has been said regarding the need of afforestation and seasoning timber for all purposes, but the question before us now is neither of those, nor is it the question of supplying sleepers for the transcontinental line, but is whether for the purpose of providing employment we, as a Commonwealth, should purchase sleepers, one, two, or three years ahead, not for railways that we have decided to build, but for railways which we anticipate that we may as a Commonwealth construct. . I did not say we had no money for public works. I said we were trying very hard to spend every penny allotted for works in order, to keep employment going, but it is of no use hiding the fact that we expect to finish up this year with a deficit of about £2,750,000. If our ordinary revenue does not improve it will not be sufficient in a time like the present to meet necessities, and he would be an optimist who would say that the ordinary revenue that we shall get next year, after the war, will be anything like equal to the ordinary expenditure, to say nothing of providing a surplus. Where can we get the money to buy a million sleepers? If we entered into a speculative business of that kind with Western Australia, the other States might, with reason, urge that we would require 4,000,000 sleepers in the next few years, and ask to be allowed to provide them. It will be impossible to buy railway requirements ahead for the next few years out of ordinary revenue. The money must be borrowed, whether it is borrowed from the ordinary Trust Funds, or from the Home Government, or in the open market. It means that the suppliers of the sleepers must be paid with borrowed money, and that interest must be paid.

Senator O'Keefe - Do you not think that it would pay the Commonwealth to borrow the money now, and get the sleepers at cheaper rates?

Senator RUSSELL - That opens up another problem - the gospel of cheapness.

I feel sure that Senator de Largie did not mean what Ire said in that regard. Whyshould he expect the Commonwealth to get the sleepers more cheaply now ? Two agencies have been suggested to us. Today we get our sleepers, not from large employers, but, generally speaking, from small co-operative parties, or from the Government of Western Australia. Is it because employment is slack that we are to cut down the price, and thereby reduce the wages to small co-operative parties?

Senator O'Keefe - No one has suggested such a thing.

Senator RUSSELL - I am not imputing that any honorable senator did make the suggestion. I want to know how the sleepers, if purchased now, are to bo cheaper?

Senator O'Keefe - Because, in two or three years' time, the ordinary demand will have put up the price.

Senator RUSSELL - Oh ! I see. The sleepers are going to be cheaper because of an anticipated increase in price in the future.

Senator O'Keefe - In ordinary trade for other purposes. During the last few years, the price of Australian hardwood has increased from 25 to 50 per cent.

Senator RUSSELL - I have no desire to impute anything to my honorable friends, because I know their records too well to do such a thing. If we were to purchase sleepers to-day, they would be bought at the current rate. We are pushing on with the north-south line. The surveyors who went to the Katherine River have been asked to extend their operations farther south. Generally speaking, the Government have been pushing on with surveys in various parts of Australia. We believe that we ought to know the Commonwealth and its possibilities in that direction. But take any proposed line of railway. With the present state of the service, according to the reports given to us by the engineers, there is not one of the projected lines which could be surveyed and started in less than six months. We could not take on the building of all the lines at one time, particularly with the depletion of the labour market through 70,000 young men going to the front. Therefore, if we were o purchase sleepers now, it would mean that we would have at least a clear six months. But, as I pointed out, the money for the purpose would have to be borrowed. If the sleepers were not used for a year, we would have to pay at least 4^ per cent, on the money. If we had the sleepers stored for two years, it would become a question of whether the interest on the money would be equivalent to the increase in price* which honorable senators anticipate. Personally, I am very sympathetic with the proposal. I believe that we shall use plenty of sleepers in the future. I consider that anything which this Parliament can do to provide increased employment in Australia, even at a little sacrifice, ought to be done at the present time. I think that honorable senators ought to be congratulated upon the good fight they have put up. I will bring their strong representations before my colleagues, and ask them to reconsider their decision, and at a later opportunity announce the verdict of the Cabinet.

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